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In a pop culture world bursting with science fiction and fantasy, there was perhaps no special effects makeup artist more respected, admired or sought after than Rick Baker. From humble beginnings cooking up monster masks in his mother's kitchen, Baker's talent and sheer enthusiasm catapulted him from his first Hollywood job as a makeup assistant on "The Exorcist" (1973) to supervising the creation of a bevy of cantina aliens in "Star Wars" (1977) and crafting arguably the scariest post-modern wolfman in "An American Werewolf in London" (1981). Thanks in part to his work on Michael Jackson's 1983 music video "Thriller," in which he turned the pop star and his backup performers into a troupe of the dancing undead, the phrase "Rick Baker, Monster Maker" became a household name. He soon found himself crafting creatures for "Harry and the Hendersons" (1987), "Men in Black" (1997) and Tim Burton's "Planet of the Apes" (2001). An unabashed horror movie buff, Baker's career went into a decidedly comedic direction with his collaboration with comedian Eddie Murphy, whom he transformed into a bevy of characters, including the portly Sherman Klump in "The Nutty Professor," (1996) and its sequel. Despite...
In a pop culture world bursting with science fiction and fantasy, there was perhaps no special effects makeup artist more respected, admired or sought after than Rick Baker. From humble beginnings cooking up monster masks in his mother's kitchen, Baker's talent and sheer enthusiasm catapulted him from his first Hollywood job as a makeup assistant on "The Exorcist" (1973) to supervising the creation of a bevy of cantina aliens in "Star Wars" (1977) and crafting arguably the scariest post-modern wolfman in "An American Werewolf in London" (1981). Thanks in part to his work on Michael Jackson's 1983 music video "Thriller," in which he turned the pop star and his backup performers into a troupe of the dancing undead, the phrase "Rick Baker, Monster Maker" became a household name. He soon found himself crafting creatures for "Harry and the Hendersons" (1987), "Men in Black" (1997) and Tim Burton's "Planet of the Apes" (2001). An unabashed horror movie buff, Baker's career went into a decidedly comedic direction with his collaboration with comedian Eddie Murphy, whom he transformed into a bevy of characters, including the portly Sherman Klump in "The Nutty Professor," (1996) and its sequel. Despite advances in computer technology, and a new generation of effects artists likely inspired to join the business by the artist himself, Baker - with his graying hair pulled back into his ever-present ponytail - promised to remain a vibrant and irreplaceable force on fantastical film sets for years to come.
Baker was born Dec. 8, 1950 in Binghamton, NY. Not surprisingly, as a child, he was utterly fascinated with monster movies, especially the 1931 horror classic, "Frankenstein," starring Boris Karloff. Between matinee screenings of horror films in theaters and watching all manner of B-movies on television, he found inspiration at the newsstand with Famous Monsters of Filmland, a magazine that served as something of a holy periodical for young horror movie fans. After reading countless behind-the-scenes stories, the preteen Baker knew then that he wanted to become a Hollywood makeup artist. The enterprising young craftsman began experimenting in his mother's kitchen, crafting body parts and monster limbs out of pie dough and baking them in the oven. The fledgling artist soon learned that even the simplest makeup - especially anything involving blood and gore - could provoke strong reactions in the unsuspecting. Like any kid, Baker took a special glee in placing fake gashes and wounds on kids and sending them screaming back home to their parents. But one incident in particular, in which he made up a neighborhood kid to look badly burned, leaving the boy's father a sobbing mess, convinced Baker he should pursue the less harmful creatures of fantasy, so as to provoke fear instead of shock and panic. What set Baker's work apart from the beginning was its uncanny combination of imagination, fueled by science fiction and monster movies, coupled with his own fascination with animals, particularly monkeys. At high school in Covina, CA, Baker became so consumed with his interest in gorillas that he created his own ape costume. Before he graduated, he had landed a job at Clokey Studios, the company behind the stop-motion animated character of Gumby, where he worked in makeup, special appliances and puppetry.
During college, Baker landed one of his first moviemaking jobs creating the title creature for B-movie horror picture, "Octaman." From that jumping off point, he earned a spot as assistant to makeup artist to Dick Smith, helping to create the startlingly realistic effects for "The Exorcist," in which makeup transformed child actress Linda Blair into the iconic, vomit-spewing vision of evil. Baker and Smith ended up creating several versions of the demon-possessed Regan MacNeil, some of which proved too frightening for use in the final film. In addition to providing extensive masks and makeup for Blair, the two technicians crafted an elaborate puppet mechanism for the memorable "spinning head" moment, allowing her to appear to twist her head 180 degrees. After that high profile project, Baker plunged back into the world of do-it-yourself moviemaking; first, with an oddly convincing transplant sequence in the mostly derided "The Thing With Two Heads" (1972), before moving on to his first collaboration with director John Landis, "Schlock" (1973), a horror comedy about an ape-like monster who falls in love with a blind girl who believes him to be a giant dog. The then 20-year-old Baker forged a strong bond with the 21-year-old Landis, who had intended to use an intentionally bad monster suit until he saw Baker's work. Looking back on the movie years later, Landis conceded that Baker's convincing creation was the only good thing in the movie. Baker next created a horrific demonic baby for the B-movie film, "It's Alive" (1974), before moving on to more mainstream material with the made-for-television movie, "The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman" (CBS, 1974), in which he turned actress Cicely Tyson into a 110-year-old woman. The makeup earned Baker and fellow makeup/monster maker Stan Winston an Emmy Award for their work.
Baker's next significant work - in fact, the project that put him on the proverbial map within the industry - was producer Dino De Laurentiis' 1976 big-budget remake of "King Kong." Eager to capitalize on then-groundbreaking advances in technology and special effects, the filmmakers originally intended to create a full-size, functioning mechanical gorilla, but when the undertaking proved too complex, they turned to Baker - already something of an unqualified expert on the behavior of monkeys. He not only created the gorilla suit - made of bear fur and sporting complex mechanics to effect facial expressions - but he played the creature himself, moving about miniature sets replicating the jungles of Skull Island and the cityscapes of Manhattan while on his doomed quest for Jessica Lange. Despite the hokey script and a panning of the film by critics, for a generation of film buffs, Baker's version of King Kong remained the definitive one. Because the world of special effects was still a small and isolated one, like many other technicians, Baker had heard of a science fiction project called "Star Wars" (1977). He soon found himself called upon by filmmaker George Lucas to help create aliens for the memorable cantina scene on planet Tatooine. Lucas had been unhappy with his own efforts during regular photography, so gave Bake six weeks and $50,000 to create as many alien creatures as he could for insert shots. Despite the budgetary constraints, the results - which included a jazz band of look-alike aliens to save time and money - remained a signature scene in one of the biggest blockbusters of all time.
Baker's next project would all but define his career and change the face of makeup effects for posterity. The film was "An American Werewolf in London," (1981), the brainchild of his old friend John Landis. Conceived as a mix of dark comedy and realistic horror, the movie follows two Americans (David Naughton and Griffin Dunne) who are attacked by rabid wolves while backpacking through the English countryside. Dunne is killed, but Naughton is cursed with turning into a werewolf at the next full moon. The film represented a new set of challenges for Baker, not the least of which was Landis' insistence on depicting the transformation from man and wolf as a brutal, painful process. Up to the task, Baker devised elaborate mechanisms to create effects such as a hand stretching into a paw in real-time, and utilizing a foam rubber cast of Naughton's face to elongate into a wolf's snout. Baker also created the steadily deteriorating form of Dunne, who, in a darkly comic running gag, revisits his old friend periodically, steadily decomposing over time from a scarred and bloody mess all the way down to a flesh-covered skeleton puppet. The hard work paid off. The film attained cult status, but perhaps more importantly, Baker's work was so impressive that a new Oscar category - Best Makeup Effects - was added. Of course Baker was the first ever to take home the award. With the success of "Werewolf," Baker found himself among the most sought after effects artists in Hollywood, thanks to his specialty in both fantasy and realism, as well as his skill with both makeup and puppetry. But one notable project fell through: "Night Skies," developed by Steven Spielberg, was to be a scary story of a group of aliens terrorizing a farm family, and Baker and several other artisans were hired to build the otherworldly creatures from scratch. But the film came apart after Spielberg, who had begun to have a change of heart about the material, clashed with a frustrated Baker over budgeting and scheduling concerns. The two rarely worked together again.
An undeterred Baker remained busy. He was hired by director Robert Towne to provide complex gorilla and makeup effects for his epic "Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes" (1984), where his work was so lifelike that many filmgoers were unaware that they were not watching real gorillas in the jungle. His utterly realistic simian effects were later put to use in the drama, "Gorillas in the Mist: The Story of Diane Fosse" (1988), for which he also was an associate producer, and again met the tall order of portraying real gorillas in a natural setting. But it was in the horror genre where Baker began to become a real celebrity. He was again tapped by Landis to turn the then most popular singer in the world, Michael Jackson, into a werewolf for the artist's music video of "Thriller," the title track of his bestselling album. Jackson, a horror movie buff himself, was a fan of Baker's. During the production - in which Baker utilized many techniques used in "Werewolf in London" - managed to transform the star and more than a dozen background performers into dancing zombies, complete with tattered flesh and sunken eyes. Baker even made a cameo as a zombie shuffling toward the camera whose arm falls off, as well as appeared prominently in the making-of documentary, where Jackson sings his praises even as Baker slips two oversize yellow contact lenses into his eyes. He also created makeup effects for "Videodrome" (1983), and on television, created the designs for the short-lived "Werewolf" (Fox, 1987) and the hit series, "Beauty & The Beast" (CBS, 1987-1990), turning actor Ron Perlman into the benign title character. But of all his hairy creatures, Baker remained fondest of his gentle giant in "Harry & The Hendersons," about a family, headed by John Lithgow, who discover Bigfoot while camping in the woods and decide to adopt him. While the comedy failed to light up the box office, Baker considered the work among his best, and it earned him a second Oscar.
Reuniting with Landis on the comedy "Coming to America" (1988), Baker created makeup effects to create disguises for star Eddie Murphy, whose expertise at mimicry and voices, along with Baker's makeup artistry proved a combustible combination. In a memorable scene in a barbershop, several customers and a barber argue over boxing - and almost everyone, including a cantankerous old Jewish man modeled after Baker's own grandfather, was played by Murphy or co-star Arsenio Hall in disguises so authentic that early audiences were often completely fooled. Before anyone knew it, a creative partnership was born, that would span four films, 20 years and countless memorable characters. Baker continued to participate in numerous projects over the years, turning Jack Nicholson into the title character in "Wolf" (1994), Tommy Lee Jones into the villainous Two-Face for "Batman Forever" (1995), and transforming Martin Landau into the living embodiment of Bela Lugosi, the haunted star of the original "Dracula," in the Tim Burton film, "Ed Wood" (1994). Both Baker and Landau won Academy Awards for their work, with the Oscars starting to pile up for the makeup maestro, who went on to win another for his creation of a number of imaginative and slightly humorous aliens in the summer blockbuster, "Men in Black" (1997).
With "The Nutty Professor" (1996), Baker again brought an Eddie Murphy creation to life - the incredibly lifelike but sadly overweight Sherman Klump. Thanks in no small part to Murphy's celebrated performance, which portrayed an outwardly cheerful but inwardly sad college science professor, Klump was a triumph for Baker as well, earning him another Oscar for his work. Unlike his fantasy creations or even Murphy's previous characters, Klump was a fully fleshed-out character, and Baker's work had to sustain itself on screen for a large portion of the movie. While Klump could have easily been an ongoing punch line, both Baker and Murphy crafted a character who audiences would feel empathy for. Instead, their comedic energy was channeled into the rest of the Klump family, which included Mama and Papa Klump, a feisty grandmother, and the belligerent brother Ernie. Created just for a memorable single scene at a dining room table, the characters were so embraced by audiences that they were resurrected for a sequel, "Nutty Professor 2: The Klumps" (2000). Throughout it all, Baker and Murphy grew more and more fond of each other, with Murphy openly crediting "Ricky Baker, Monster Maker" for being integral to the films' success, and Baker praising Murphy for both his patience in the makeup chair and his enthusiasm at bringing their creations to life on camera.
Baker's next challenge was turning superstar Jim Carrey into the title character of Ron Howard's live-action "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" (2000). With this film filled with the Whos of Whoville, he faced one of his toughest assignments yet, encountering numerous trials and errors while attempting to recreate a memorable green Grinch that would allow Carrey maximum flexibility and range of expression. Baker also found himself in the position of having to please studio executives worried that their multi-million star might be unrecognizable under too much makeup. To make matters more difficult, Carrey grew uncomfortable during the makeup process, and Baker was forced to assure the actor that he in fact knew exactly what he was going through, having undergone almost every makeup process himself. Baker's nerves were also frayed from working on the Klumps sequel at the same time, and vowed to never work on simultaneous projects again, even though "Grinch" earned him yet another Academy Award.
That was easier said than done, as Baker continued to be high in demand. While the digital effects revolution eliminated the demand for mechanical and puppeteering effects, Baker's makeup effects remained in demand from actors and directors eager to maintain a sense of physical reality on their sets. Notable filmmakers remained loyal to Baker as well. He provided effects for "Planet of the Apes," turning Michael Clarke Duncan, Paul Giamatti and Helena Bonham Carter into speaking Simians. Baker also offered some advice on monkeys, helping to reshape the story and change Tim Roth's violent character from that of the more passive gorilla to the more erratic chimpanzee. Baker also provided effects for "Men in Black II" (2002) and another Eddie Murphy vehicle, "The Haunted Mansion" (2003). He turned actress Amber Tamblyn into a frighteningly decomposed version of herself for wildly successful horror film, "The Ring" (2002), and expertly turned actor Ron Perlman into the fanboy favorite, "Hellboy" (2004). And he managed to transform perennial adolescent Adam Sandler into an old man for "Click" (2006) before outdoing himself again with Eddie Murphy, turning him into both an elderly Asian man and a hugely overweight woman in the box office dud, "Norbit" (2007).
Received far more warmly by both critics and audiences was the cleverly self-referential Disney princess fantasy, "Enchanted" (2007), in which Baker did a fantastic job turning wicked stepmother Susan Sarandon into the spitting image of the apple-wielding hag from the studio's first animated fairy tale, "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" (1937). The following year he took on the potentially combustible challenge of transforming actor Robert Downey, Jr. into an African-American for the Ben Stiller-directed comedy, "Tropic Thunder" (2008) without it resembling a bad minstrel show. The makeup master pulled it off beautifully, freeing Downey to unleash one of his most daring and inspired performances. A longtime dream of Baker's came to pass when he was hired to provide practical special effects for "The Wolfman" (2010), a remake of the Universal Studios classic monster movie from the 1940s, starring Benicio Del Toro as the doomed lycanthrope, Lawrence Talbot. Although the film was plagued with problems and delays - some of which arose from the original director's demands to use more of Baker's physical effects and less digital work - Baker was recognized for his substantial contribution with an Academy Award for Best Achievement in Makeup. Baker's team of technical wizards also lent a bit of real world effects to the largely digitized "Tron: Legacy" (2010), the long-awaited sequel to the ground-breaking 1982 film starring Jeff Bridges who reprises his role as computer genius Kevin Flynn.
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"When I heard they were doing "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein", I pursued it, and it didn't happen. At the time, I was disappointed, but then I saw the movie." --Baker quoted in Entertainment Weekly, June 30-July 7, 2000.
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